Friday 17 April 2015

Cave Creek - Kotihotiho

Punakaiki is a very small settlement that services the 30,000ha Paparoa National Park which has a wide and varied landscape from the lush West Coast native rainforest that we’ve come to know & love, the long and wildly rugged beaches and coastline and the snow covered mountain range that forms the backdrop to this beautiful area.

There are many tramping tracks in the ranges and shorter walks along the coast. One of the most popular tramping tracks, the Inland Pack Track, is a 2-3 days 25km one way walk, unfortunately (though not for us, as we wouldn’t have walked it), it is closed and has been closed since Easter last year when Cyclone Ita blew through. There is a huge amount of windfall and the complete track is not likely to be opened again any time soon although you can walk a shorter middle section. We spoke to a DOC ranger somewhere in our travels and he mentioned that over 20,000ha of forest had been destroyed right along the West Coast.

He also said that people wanting to go tramping, can’t understand why the tracks haven’t been cleared before now- it’s not just a matter of a couple of guys and their chainsaws working their way along a track. There are so many trees down and many of them are huge, it could take a week for them to clear just one tree. Then there’s the root plates to move, the slips that have taken out sections of track and the tracks to repair too. When you see the devastation first hand you can understand why the clean up along the Coast will take many, many years.

The Inland Pack Track passes by the end of the Cave Creek- Kotihotiho Walk. There’s a 6km drive down a gravel track to the beginning of the Cave Creek Walk and, although it does have a name- Bullock Creek Road- I wouldn’t class it as a road. The scenery is once again stunning with towering white cliffs on the otherside of Bullock Creek and a swampy flax covered wetland on the track side. About 3kms along the track there’s a sign advising not to go any further if there’s been heavy rain as the area is prone to flooding. Well it’s been raining for days and the water is just lapping at the edge of the track so we think we’ll be fine driving on.

Eventually the track breaks out into wide open valley where I believe there was a farm a long while ago, the Inland Pack Track crosses here and heads off up the valley. A new gravel parking area has been formed recently near the entrance and there are also new gates that have been added to the beginning of the track- perhaps in time for a 20 year anniversary?

The rain started again and was torrential for about half an hour so we sat in the cab and ate our lunch- which was just as well as when we did open the door the local swam of sandflies invited themselves in. Eventually the sun came out and it was only then that we decided we’d to walk to Cave Creek.

We have walked to Cave Creek before, on our visit to Punakaiki 17 years ago just after the track re-opened, 3 years after a tragic accident- I say ‘accident’ but actually it was a tragic disaster. Most New Zealanders will know and have sad memories of Cave Creek. This beautiful and scenic walk will forever be tarnished because of an incident that happened there 20 years ago this April.

On 28th April 1995, 17 students from an Outdoor Recreation course at the Polytechnic in Greymouth, along with DOC’s Punakaiki Field Manager, crowded onto a viewing platform high above Cave Creek. The platform collapsed and fell about 30 metres into the chasm below. As a result 14 people lost their lives and another four were seriously injured -one became a tetraplegic. Other members of the party arrived at the platform moments after it’s collapse, two raced back up the track and along the road to the main highway to get help (after finding no keys in the vehicles at the carpark), others went to comfort the survivors and bring blankets from the vehicles. Because of the remoteness, it was a full 2 hours before outside help arrived in the form of one police constable from Greymouth. He quickly arranged for helicopters to lift the injured and dead out of the creek bed.

A poignant reminder and memorial of the disaster sits in a clearing not too far from the start of the walk and is adorned with many carefully chosen stones that people have brought with them on their return from the creek bed.

The 2km walk crosses a couple of small ridges before descending into a deep narrow chasm and ending at the Cave Creek resurgence.

The creek bed is full of large boulders and is mostly dry. Beautiful green moss covers the rocks and hangs from the overhanging trees like delicate green lace curtains. The large flat boulders looked like they’ve been tossed about by a giant’s hand and are quite slippery if you put a foot wrong while clambering over them to view the resurgence.

The stream emerges from underneath the rocks in several places but it mainly flows out from inside the dark cave we can see underneath the cliff upstream (left photo below). It is here that the platform landed after crashing down from the cliff 30 metres above. The right hand photo is looking back towards the end of the track which is just to David’s left. It’s not possible to enter the creek bed after heavy rain as the water rises quickly with a raging torrent passing the bottom of the stairway.

We climb back out of the creek bed, the steep wooden stairway turns a few times before we reach the top of the chasm. The area where the platform was located is now fenced off with warning signs about the cliff edge. But it looks like the curious will never take heed, there’s a well worn track around the end of the fence.

It’s a long haul back to the top of the ridge and unbeknownst to either of us we both carry a specially selected stone in our pocket.

I’m glad that the walk is still available, it would have been such a shame to have closed the track for good. Some might think it’s a little morbid but in reality it’s a stunningly beautiful spot and a place where you can take a minute or two to reflect on life and what might have been for fourteen young adults. And while there is no way on earth that they should have died like they did, it must be of some comfort for their loved ones to know that they passed on in such beautiful surroundings.

It is mostly because of this terrible tragedy that we now have so many (some would say too many) DOC signs warning us about the imminent dangers of a particular attraction or walk.
The Cave Creek disaster had a significant impact on New Zealand, 14 people lost their lives in an accident that could have easily been prevented. Although it was a tragedy, the legacy of the students who died and the Conservation Officer still remains and is significant to society today. The Cave Creek disaster was a pivotal point of change for New Zealand. Before this disaster, the Department of Conservation was very blasé about their responsibility to provide safe tracks and structures in parks throughout New Zealand. The Government also overlooked the department when allocated funding before the disaster. This all changed on April 28th 1995. It was only then that these weaknesses were addressed and the country could begin the process of change.- The Cave Creek Platform Disaster

Footnote- just a few weeks ago, I listened to the farming programme on the National Radio, they were interviewing the Stuart family who own Cable Bay Station outside Nelson, the farm that the Cable Bay walking track passes through. Which they instigated and maintain. You might remember we visited Cable Bay but the track was closed for lambing. The family have planted a native bush grove in a small valley near the track and on the coast overlooking Tasman Bay. It is dedicated to their son, Evan Stuart. Who lost his life at Cave Creek.


  1. Morena Shelllie & David, I can remember walking the Inland Pack Track before the Cave Creek Disaster, I think the Ballroom overhanging rock is part of it? I remember it was a fine day as I lay on the ground watching clouds scud across the west coast sky, No memory of hoards of Sandfly's tho!
    Safe travels through Arthurs Pass.

    1. Hi Jimu, yes you have a good memory, the Ballroom Overhang is part of the Inland Track, we were thinking of walking to it from the Fox River end but it was just a little too far in the inclement weather. Those clouds are still here though :)


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